1989: The Charlottes - LoveHappy
Huntington, UK’s The Charlottes formed in 1988. They recorded a little over an hour’s worth of material in their relatively short existence, compiled and reissued in 2006 on Liar: The Best of The Charlottes. The quartet’s debut, LoveHappy (1989), is a brief affair, running through eight songs in 22 minutes.
Far more on the brash and noisy end of the shoegaze/noise-pop spectrum (as opposed to the atmospheric, dream-pop end), LoveHappy is remarkably upbeat and energetic. A song like “Keep Me Down” reigns in the energy for a slightly more dream-pop approach but, unlike some of their contemporaries in the late-80s, The Charlottes don’t tend to aim for the ethereal — everything here is firmly grounded within a guitar/drums pop foundation and, when they do get more ungrounded, it’s with guitar feedback and rapid, messy strumming. Vocalist Petra Roddis also has a sweet voice not unlike Pam Berry of Washington, DC’s Black Tambourine, to whom one could easily compare the British quartet with — saccharine melodies, bristly feedback and all.
One element that sets The Charlottes apart from many other shoegaze bands of the era is Simon Scott’s messy, energetic drumming. Some of his scattershot tom-fills are a bit goofy (see opening track “Are You Happy Now?”), but Scott’s presence gives The Charlottes a far more aggressive rhythmic drive than My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and most other late-80s shoegaze/noise-pop acts (ignoring its distinctly late-80s guitar noise section, “In My Hair” could pass as a punk song, or at least as hyper-energetic twee). Scott joined Slowdive in 1990, and just released a new solo album, Bunny, in October.
The Charlottes broke up in 1991, releasing the much longer and more realized Things Come Apart that same year. LoveHappy, however, possesses a certain charm of effervescent naïveté that’s tough to replicate. It’s an off-kilter, wide-eyed debut that’s equally clumsy, endearing, and boisterous. Such charm can’t be manufactured, and it’s difficult to replicate — Beat Happening pulled it off a few times, but even they reached a point of dubious self-awareness.
This particular style of noise-pop continues to show up constantly (Slumberland Records, anyone?), with some of the best contemporary examples I can think of coming from Montreal’s Silver Dapple and New York’s Weed Hounds. Fans of earlier innovators like Black Tambourine would do especially well to give LoveHappy a listen — The Charlottes could fit snugly between them and The Vaselines on any post-C86 indie pop mixtape.
1978: Armand Schaubroeck Steals - Ratfucker
My favorite type of backing vocals usually occur in R&B music. There’s a passion in the ooh and aah’s and elongated sex sounds that feels inspired next to rock singers, who often seem bored behind a lead vocalist. I only mention this because there are backing vocals on all but one track off the 1978 album Ratfucker. And I cannot imagine anyone even being remotely bored singing along to the seedy fucked up insanity that is Armand Schaubroeck Steals.
Littered with expletives, pimps, drug dealers, statutory rapists, preteen whores, gigolos, and different types of contract killers, Ratfucker is as bizarre as it is filthy. The LP is arguably the pinnacle of Armand Schaubroeck Steals’ short lived career before retiring to run a famous vintage guitar store (House of Guitars) in Rochester with his brother.
Gospel choir backing vocals fuel the title track, and there’s a distinct sense of Catholic upbringing throughout the album that’s reminiscent of the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died.” Musically, there’s some typical garage rock arrangements when the guitar riffs aren’t getting into Television/Dire Straits territory. Most notably though, the album’s processed sax sound is dripping in post-Velvets/“I Wanna Boogie With You” Lou Reed-era rock and roll.
Juxtaposed with Schaubroeck’s angry speak-singing, the centerpiece of the album is impossible to avoid. Using repetition, an antagonistic disgust, and stretched out atonal yells, Schaubroeck wears his depraved street characters in a disturbingly intense way. There’s a seedy cinematic quality surrounding the whole narrative and its cast of characters, particularly present in the ripped-off James Bond theme riffs during the last track — a theatrical 11-minute closer sung from the perspective of a hired killer who murders wives.
Schaubroeck is an actor as much as a singer, unafraid to veer off into crackpot ad-libs of hi ho’s or zip a dee do dah’s. It doesn’t seem so surprising that his impossible-to-find debut triple LP was a rock opera interspersed with spoken word dialogues about his teenage imprisonment for grand larceny (hence, the “Steals” at the end of his band name). Listeners can’t help but sense that, through his menacing sneers, Schaubroeck is processing some worthwhile exploration into the seedy underworld of urban life. The music is a case study as much as it is an artistic statement, and it’s easy to wonder whether Ratfucker could’ve been The Blue Mask or Street Hassle if the title and songs weren’t so explicit. Instead, it survives in the margins of rock and roll history as a deranged but brilliant cult classic.
1989: Blind Guardian - “Valhalla”
I don’t play video games much, but the release and fanfare over “Skyrim” makes me wonder about the role of escapism in modern society. Really, almost all forms of entertainment exist to satisfy a desire to leave the present state and envision, even just for a few moments, a world teeming with mystery, excitement and intrigue.
Although everyone aspires for different things (mansions, women, dragon-slaying), ultimately they all boil down to one concept: intrigue. We all want to matter, we all want to be interesting. Nobody wants to play a supporting role in a movie about their own life.
Countless pop songs portray a life of riches, a heart-broken confession, or a wild night in the club. After all is said and done, they’re all the same as the power metal epics about fighting an evil sorcerer or restoring peace to some fantasy land. These songs place the listener in a new world, where they have some grand importance placed upon them and their deeds. They do things that other people want to hear about.
Although we can’t all be astounding figures, the right song helps us become those fantastic characters in our own heads. We become the people we read about, the heroes whose deeds line myths and storybooks. We cease to be ourselves, and become the people we always wanted to be.
1967: The Baroques - The Baroques
Enter The Baroques: yet another troupe of minor characters from the world of 60s psychedelia. A Milwaukee Wisconsin band, their garage/psych/blues reputation rested on a few accidents of their career. They were signed to Chess for their sole album in 1967, a blues label that needed a token act that would represent a more rock ‘n’ roll sound. A single of theirs, “Mary Jane,” got pegged as a drug song, and was banned. Nothing concrete was uttered to dispel the rumors at the time, allowing The Baroques to claim their place in the misappropriated archives of hazy psychedelia.
In actual fact The Baroques did exactly what they advertised they would do. They were moody, crabby, and minor in every sense of the word. Their intentions were baroque enough that they used a harpsichord, as if to prove that the contents of the tin were as described. Granted, they checked many of the boxes indicating psychedelia; for example their lyrics named objects in the environment as ‘purple’, or ‘tangerine.’ But only a few of the songs were true freakouts, like “Musical Tribute to the Oscar Meyer Wiener Wagon” – the closest The Baroques got to the loose, baggy, psychedelia of, say, The Red Crayola. “Iowa, A Girl’s Name” was a stab in this direction too.
Though it may seem redundant to narrowly define psychedelia during the gold-rush of experimentation that was the 60s, the reason for making the distinction is that The Baroques’ ambitions deserve credit for being of their time (only just). Growly freak-outs were not toppling off the bandwagon in 1967 as they were by the time ’68 and ’69 had made it obligatory to carry souvenirs of Eastern music and Jazz around as evidence of musical adventuring. The Baroques got their own sound by adding dimensions, rather than extensions, to the simpler structures of early 60s rock. This meant that the token tambourine player in the band was an effete and stylized gloom personified. There were fuzz guitars, there was frontman Jay Berkenhagen’s deep, toneless voice. The jaunty “Rose-Colored Classes” was like the portentous opposite of Nancy Sinatra’s 1967 hit “Sugar Town,” lyrically speaking (“She thinks that everything she does will turn out better in the end… she’s looking at the world through rose-colored glasses”).
In the end, The Baroques were harbingers not only of gloom itself but of gloomy musical movements to come. Those fuzz guitars are redolent of the innovations of lo-fi folk rockers of the 90s, whose stamp was felt in the sound, not necessarily the structure, of their songs. These were folk songs dipped in a tarry bloom, as if weathered by a less bucolic experience – updated from their origin, but not significantly altered. They were to folk as The Baroques were to 60s pop. Sixties bands were called a lot of wacky and unrepresentative things, so how could Chess have known that their first non-R&B act would dourly set out to do exactly what they had said on the tin and produce singular rock ‘n’ roll: neither fish nor fowl, neither foul, nor fair? The reason that The Baroques remain an interesting listen today is that they manage to bypass a dated sound with a good helping of ornery originality; a palpable curmudgeonliness that is difficult not to enjoy for its own sake.
1990-1992: Breadwinner - The Burner
One of the oddest groups ever signed to Merge records in the early 90s, Breadwinner still left an undeniable mark on the world of both indie rock and metal. Surprising, considering the band only existed for a brief two years and their recorded output (compiled almost completely on The Burner) totals under 25 minutes. For fans of what is or what was instrumental math rock, this group may very well be the true genesis of the form.
While their origins seem more mysterious than they actually are (mostly due to the lack of press Breadwinner received), it is known that the group was formed out of Virginia punk mainstays Honor Roll, while the trio of Pen Rollings, Robert Donne, and Chris Farmer had been playing together for a number of years before getting together as Breadwinner. Merge records signed the group and put out a couple of 7” singles before they parted ways in 1992. While the members later moved on to other projects (bassist Donne joined post rock pioneers Labradford) none of them recorded anything that would come close to the energetic jolt of Breadwinner.
Retaining the speed and ferocity (as well as the short song lengths) of their punk roots but throwing in the technical rhythmic complexity of prog rock and precision of speed metal, the band was likely more confounding to crowds than well loved during their brief career. Nevertheless, they forged a musical identity that would be extrapolated on in a hundred different ways in the years to come. Notably touring the surrounding states, it could be inferred that the group was a catalyst for the formation of like minded (but remarkably different) acts such as Don Cabellero and Polvo. The Burner is certainly a memorable blast of schizophrenic prog metal, even if it is over before you know it.
1977: Buzzcocks - Spiral Scratch
Surprise punk-cred test: name a Buzzcocks album that isn’t Singles Going Steady. Chances are nothing else popped into your head. Not too shocking, considering Singles has become the band’s dominant work: its both a great entry point and arguably the strongest release of their 30-year career. Released after only two LPs, Singles collects Buzzcocks’ eight UK singles and their B-sides, most of which were penned by the band’s longtime guitarist and singer Pete Shelley. But if you inspect the back of the album, you’ll find a lone writing credit on the very first single, “Orgasm Addict,” attributed to a mysteriously absent individual: Howard Devoto.
What the back cover won’t tell you is that Devoto was more than a onetime collaborator. He was, in fact, a founding member of Buzzcocks, and the band’s singer for their first year of existence. Devoto’s time fronting Buzzcocks didn’t garner the recognition of the Singles-era lineup, but since he quit the band days after their stellar first release, who knows where the group might have gone. Luckily, the sole relic from his stint with the band, the scorching Spiral Scratch EP, provides a glimpse of their early promise.
Spiral Scratch was recorded in one night at the end of December 1976 and released a month later with cash that band members scraped together from friends and family. What cements Spiral Scratch in the pantheon of punk is its release on the band’s own New Hormones label, one of the first independent labels in the punk world (in contrast to major labels like EMI for The Sex Pistols or Columbia for The Clash). But the real reason the Buzzcocks mattered was because their music fit this method so brilliantly: it was snide, twitchy, raw, and viciously self-aware. From the opening of “Breakdown,” where Deveto frantically confessed his shredded nerves over fractured guitars, to the raucous mess of “Friends of Mine,” which flits between rants about “pissing adrenaline” to some ugly-ass whacked-out guitar solos and back again, Spiral Scratch packed as much twisted snarl as possible into its brief length. Listening to the EP’s centerpiece, “Boredom,” it isn’t too hard to understand Devoto’s sudden departure from the punk scene he already found “hum-drum” and “has-been” to move on to his more experimental band, Magazine. In truth, Devoto crammed as much angst-ridden sneer into four songs as other punks have in their entire careers. And it only took him 10 minutes.